ComEd Steps Up to Bridge the Digital DivideOctober 20, 2023
In September, the University of Chicago Data Science Institute hosted the Chicagoland Broadband Equity and Inclusion Summit at the David Rubenstein Forum, where ComEd met with academic leaders, state and federal officials, and community representatives to discuss current broadband gaps facing our local communities. Solutions for closing the digital divide include ComEd’s work to expand its communications infrastructure and enable Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to use existing fiber optic cable to reach more customers with affordable broadband services.
“As a society, we have known about the “digital divide” for some time, but three years ago, COVID amplified it,” said Gil Quiniones, CEO of ComEd. “By offering access to our infrastructure, we hope it will help people in every community have access to online learning, telecommuting and virtual health care. We need to make the digital divide a thing of the past.”
Hundreds of thousands of Chicago households lack access to a broadband internet connection today, including 10% of school-aged children. Earlier this year, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) recognized ComEd’s effort to boost connectivity for customers in need of internet access with a $14.6 million award to support 400 miles of fiber deployment covering the south and west sides of Chicago.
Investments in advanced communications networks — which require high-speed fiber — are a key component of ComEd’s long-term infrastructure plans. A multi-year grid plan proposed by ComEd calls for additional expansion of fiber optic cable onto the grid to sustain reliability performance, which can be leveraged by ISPs to expand their delivery of high-speed broadband service.
“The NTIA is working to ensure that every American will have access to technologies that allow them to fully participate in the modern economy,” said NTIA Federal Program Officer Patrick Carroll. “The grant enables ComEd to renew partnerships with broadband providers to expand high-speed Internet access in underserved communities.”
The NTIA grant will leverage ComEd’s planned infrastructure investment to affordably bring new middle-mile infrastructure into 24 communities in need, representing 440,000 households in communities like North Lawndale, Englewood, Woodlawn and South Shore. By offering last-mile service providers affordable access to its existing fiber capacity, ComEd can significantly reduce costs for third-party ISPs to deploy broadband services in areas of need.
Measuring the impact of high-speed internet in underserved communities is a high priority at the University of Chicago’s Data Science Institute, according to Dr. Alexis Schrubbe, director of the Internet Equity Initiative, and host of the Broadband Summit. “The value of new investments in internet infrastructure hinge on whether they lead to improved outcomes in society,” said Dr. Schrubbe. “We are investigating the individual and social effects to understand how different population groups are benefitting from these investments.” Dr. Schrubbe led the panel discussion “Demystifying the Broadband Ecosystem, From Policy to Pings”, which included Daniel Anello, CEO, Kids First Chicago; Nick Feamster, professor of Computer Science, University of Chicago; Shaka Rawls, principal, Leo High School, Chicago; and Kyla Williams Tate, director of Digital Equity, Cook County.
The city of Chicago’s Digital Equity Plan emphasizes the importance of community engagement as it builds on Chicago Connected, a $50 million four-year public-private partnership launched in June 2020 to provide free internet to low-income Chicago Public School students. In its first two years, the program connected 100,000 students to at-home broadband.
Partnerships are essential to accelerating high-speed broadband in underserved areas, according to ComEd’s Quiniones. “Finding a solution to the digital divide is complicated,” he said. “It will take diverse partnerships and durable coalitions. It will require service providers to invest in first-mile and last-mile infrastructure and that cost is significant, even with help from federal grant programs. By offering access to our infrastructure, we hope it will reduce the cost — both for service providers and customers. As the Broadband Summit demonstrated, there is widespread recognition for the need to achieve digital equity in every community in Illinois.”